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Mitigation: a solution or just absolution?

A politically powerful Panhandle family uses its clout to destroy wetlands that critics said were irreplaceable.

Published May 23, 2005

[Times photo: Lara Cerri]
Environmental activist Linda Young walks through sparse vegetation last year in the mitigation area on Pensacola Beach near the construction of the Portofino condominium towers.
Congress and the Corps

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PENSACOLA BEACH - The neighbors opposed it. So did three federal agencies.

Yet the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers allowed an influential Pensacola family to wipe out rare beach wetlands to build five 21-story luxury condominiums.

The new wetlands the developer built to mitigate the damage were as poor a substitute as experts predicted.

"We told them it would be almost impossible to mitigate," said Hildreth Cooper of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We told them they should either deny the permit or admit they can't mitigate for it."

The original wetlands, lush with saltmeadow cord grass and pennywort, were vital to the purity and health of the emerald green waters of nearby Santa Rosa Sound, home to spotted sea trout, redfish, ladyfish and jack crevalle.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service repeatedly objected to other proposed developments on the beach that destroyed similar wetlands.

Attempts by those other developers to preserve some remnant of the marsh always failed, Cooper said, because they shrivel when cut off from the rest.

Portofino posed a particularly difficult problem. Of the 11 acres of wetlands on the 28-acre site, the $250-million condo project would wipe out 6.5 acres, more than half.

That's why the wildlife agency, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Marine Fisheries Service objected to the project.

The developers were lawyer Fred Levin, a leading Democratic Party fundraiser with close friends at all levels of government, and his brother Allen, one of the Panhandle's most successful developers.

When Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army Michael Davis toured the site, "he said, "This project does not need to happen,"' recalled environmental activist Linda Young. "He was adamantly opposed to it. But then he went back to D.C. A few weeks went by, and I called him. And he said, "I can't stop this project. These people are too powerful."'

Davis, however, denies telling Young the Levins were too powerful. "I would've never said those words," he said.

The Levins planned to preserve several dunes, but not the marshes so important to the sound.

"When we did our development, we could not do a development on this acreage without impacting some wetlands," Allen Levin said. "We couldn't move them because then the buildings would be right on top of each other, and we liked the distance."

The corps permit reviewer, Lyal "Clif" Payne, spent two years struggling to accommodate the developers and save wetlands.

Portofino didn't pass a standard formula used to measure wetlands' value. So Payne tossed the results.

Frustrated with delays, Levin met with top corps officials in Jacksonville. "When it finally got to the very higher-ups, we were finally able to get some relief," he said.

Corps officials ordered two small marshes preserved and the creation of new ones next door where Hurricane Opal had washed sand across the island.

Three of the towers are occupied and two more are under construction, looming above one-story houses next door. Sales are brisk, with some selling for more than $500,000.

The new wetlands were nothing like the old. Water stood two inches deep, the surface broken every foot or so by thin brown grass.

"There's no way that mitigates for the adverse impacts that project is having," Young said.

Then Hurricane Ivan roared through, knocking down the dunes and sweeping sand across the same areas Opal had covered. The man-made marshes were destroyed.

Since they were destroyed through a natural disaster, the corps won't make the Levins rebuild the new wetlands, Payne said.

--Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

[Last modified December 14, 2006, 16:34:10]

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